Ever since humans began cultivating the land, we’ve always sought out and applied bigger and better technology in agriculture and construction. The last twenty years have seen especially rapid progress when compared to the centuries before, and, thanks to the huge changes inspired by 2020, 2021 may be the year that many of these new technologies are properly applied in the field.
2020 saw major shifts in all industries around the world, as organizations were forced into finding digital and remote solutions to their everyday tasks. At the same time, the pandemic highlighted social and environmental issues, calling for some big thinking, and lasting change.
‘Agriculture 4.0’, sometimes called the ‘fourth agricultural revolution’, is a catch-all term for the next big trends facing the industry – and is slowly taking shape in farms across the world. These include a greater focus on precision agriculture, the internet of things (IoT) and the use of big data to drive greater business efficiencies in the face of rising populations and climate change.
Doing more with less
The accelerated technological progress in the agricultural industry over the past two decades is partly down to the increasing pressure on agriculture to do more with less. With world food demand set to double in the next 15 years and an estimated 10 billion people to feed by 2050, farmers and researchers are working on increasingly innovative high-tech solutions to find ways to produce more food, while minimizing environmental impact. Revolutions in agricultural technology have helped boost crop yields worldwide, and robots that kill weeds, deliver fertilizer and harvest crops are next in line.
According to a survey by the German agricultural journal Agrar Heute, 82 percent of farmers assume that machines will carry out field work autonomously in the future. While human judgement might always be needed to some degree, autonomous robots could take a lot of the hard, repetitive work out of farming – and are a solution to labor shortages. Back-breaking work like weeding can also be done entirely by robot. With the help of artificial intelligence and onboard cameras, some can even pull the weeds from the soil as they move along rows of vegetables.
2020 saw AI take on new importance as a way of working remotely, with minimized human contact. When COVID-19 restrictions made it difficult to go out in the field, digital farms were able to make decisions based on information from satellite maps. The robots are coming.
Driverless farm vehicles
Love them or hate them, a much-discussed agritech trend which began to look even more appealing during the pandemic and seems set to trundle on into 2021 is the development of driverless tractors. Even though many high-end commercial tractors are already capable of a high degree of automation, these tractors still legally require a human at the wheel. Driverless vehicles however, like the ones developed by engineers at Harper Adams University in the UK, can be used to sow, grow and harvest a field of wheat without humans ever having to touch the plants. Other projects have been gaining pace in China and Australia.
Because the cost of labor is one of the main limiting factors in agriculture, a trend for ever-larger machines that can cover more ground in less time has resulted in heavy machines that tend to compact the soil, reducing crop yields. Much of the current focus is on trying to create smaller, lighter farm equipment that can cover the same ground as the big models while preserving soil quality. With 10 autonomous tractors weighing the same as one conventional tractor, the new breed of farm vehicle is far lighter on the soil.
While some may be unsure about the rise of driverless tractors and their impact on the farming community, most can agree that cleaner, greener vehicles are something to reach for. In the search for alternative fuels, hydrogen has emerged as the likely future of farming thanks to its unmatched efficiency.
Vehicles powered by hydrogen fuel cells may well be the answer to pollution-free farming, but only if they can be produced more affordably. The cost of hydrogen fuel cells is still a huge hurdle to overcome, meaning that, despite promising prototypes like New Holland’s hydrogen tractor which reduces C02 by around 50%, the vehicles are still some time away from commercial production. A report by Toyota and Hyundai predicts in five to 10 years hydrogen fuel cells will become more competitive compared with internal combustion engines in terms of efficiency and cost.
More manufacturers are developing electric construction equipment in order to meet different countries’ emissions regulations and improve efficiency. For example, Volvo’s new ECR25 electric compact excavator and L25 electric compact wheel loader are operated by lithium-ion batteries which replace the combustion engine, while Cummins and Hyundai partnered on the development of an electric mini excavator powered by Cummins’ flexible battery modules.
Beyond reducing emissions, electrification brings many other benefits – a major one being the welcome reduction in noise levels. This means improved comfort and safety for operators and others on the job site, and the opportunity to use the equipment inside buildings, inner-city work sites, and other noise-sensitive areas.
Drones have the potential to radically enhance current farming practices, with their birds’ eye view across the fields and machine vision used to identify unhealthy crop areas. Farmers will have access to a different view of their paddock with diagnostics that detect where the problems exist and what they might be. By identifying crop health problems, drones can help to reduce the need for herbicide, pesticide and fertilizer. Drones are currently selling out as fast as they can be produced: 2021 will surely see this trend fly.
Blockchain and Big Data
Big Data is the currency of the digital world, and the increased use of Blockchain in the agricultural industry allows for the collection of valuable data from every stage of the supply chain to allow for smarter farming year-on-year. From reducing the time of food origin tracing to a matter of seconds to helping farmers to sell commodities at fair prices, Blockchain has big implications for all aspects of the industry. It can be used to improve food safety and traceability, improve efficiency and reduce wasted costs by evaluating previous projects, revealing trends and patterns in everything from weather to traffic, and standardizing the industry to protect farmers’ rights.
Unsurprisingly for a year when the internet became even more important for industry, more and more people are turning to digital buying and selling, using online marketplaces like Tradus to buy and sell farm and construction equipment. We’re looking forward to seeing what exciting developments 2021 brings to the heavy machinery industry – and as always we’ll keep you up to date with trends, tips and news here on the Tradus blog.